March is WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH and it’s a good time to take a moment to think a bit about the history we’ve all lived. A lot has changed for women in the last 25 years and perhaps no one has chronicled it with more clarity, compassion or complexity than Anna Quindlen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist turned novelist. She reported from the front lines of the gender wars as she combined a high-profile journalism career at the NYTimes, became the mother of three and partnered in a long-term marriage with her husband, New Jersey attorney Gerald Krovatin. In 1988 she wrote the following, controversial, column (reprinted in her first compilation of essays, Living Out Loud) which sparked a national conversation. Her balanced outlook reflecting real life yin and yang and push and pull are on display here, just as they are in her famous, never-given commencement speech published as the best-selling A Short Guide to a Happy Life. It may seem a teensy bit dated now, but it is still a neat bit of writing that makes you think about where you were – and where you are. WHAT WERE YOU DOING IN 1988 ? (Reprinted with permission, Copyright 1988 Anna Quindlen)
WOMEN ARE JUST BETTER
My favorite news story so far this year was the one saying that in England scientists are working on a way to allow men to have babies. I’d buy tickets to that. I’d be happy to stand next to any man I know in one of those labor rooms the size of a Volkswagen trunk and whisper, “No, dear, you don’t really need the Demerol; just relax and do your second-stage breathing.” It puts me in mind of an old angry feminist slogan: “If men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” I think this is specious. If men got pregnant, there would be safe, reliable methods of birth control. They’d be inexpensive, too.
I can almost hear some of you out there thinking that I do not like men. This isn’t true. I have been married for some years to a man and I hope that someday our two sons will grow up to be men. All three of my brothers are men. It is simply that I think women are superior to men. There, I’ve said it. It is my dirty, little secret. We’re not supposed to say it because in the old days men used to say that women were superior. What they meant was that we were too wonderful to enter courtrooms, enjoy sex, or worry our minds about money. Obviously, this is not what I mean at all.
The other day a very wise friend of mine asked: “Have you ever noticed that what passes as a terrific man would only be an adequate woman?” A Roman candle went off in my head; she was absolutely right. What I expect from my male friends is that they are polite and clean. What I expect from my female friends is unconditional love, the ability to finish my sentences for me when I am sobbing, a complete and total willingness to pour their hearts out to me, and the ability to tell me why the meat thermometer isn’t supposed to touch the bone.
The inherent superiority of women came to mind just the other day when I was reading about sanitation workers. New York City has finally hired women to pick up the garbage, which makes sense to me, since, as I’ve discovered a good bit of being a woman consists of picking up garbage. There was a story about the hiring of these female sanitation workers, and I was struck by the fact that I could have written that story without ever leaving my living room – a reflection not upon the quality of the reporting but the predictability of the male sanitation workers’ responses.
The story started by describing the event, and then the two women, who were just your average working women trying to make a buck and get by. There was something about all the maneuvering that had to take place before they could be hired, and then there were the obligatory quotes from the male sanitation workers about how women were incapable of doing the job. They were similar to quotes I have read over the years suggesting that women are not fit to be rabbis, combat soldiers, astronauts, firefighters, judges, ironworkers, and President of the United States. Chief among them was a comment from one sanitation worker who said it just wasn’t our kind of job, that women were cut out to do dishes and men were cut out to do yard work.
As a woman who has done dishes, yard work and tossed a fair number of Hefty bags, I was peeved – more so because I would fight for the right of any laid-off sanitation man to work, for example, at the gift-wrap counter at Macy’s, even though any woman knows that men are hormonally incapable of wrapping packages or tying bows.
I simply can’t think of any jobs any more that women can’t do. Come to think of it, I can’t think of any job women don’t do. I know lots of men who are full-time lawyers, doctors, editors and the like. And I know lots of women who are full time lawyers and part-time interior decorators, pastry chefs, algebra teachers, and garbage slingers. Women are the glue that hold our day-to-day world together.
Maybe the sanitation workers who talk about the sex division of duties are talking about the girls just like the girls that married dear old dad. Their day is done. Now lots of women know that if they don’t carry the garbage bag to the curb, it’s not going to get carried – either because they’re single, or their husband is working a second job, or he’s staying at the office until midnight, or he just left them.
I keep hearing that there’s a new breed of men out there who don’t talk about helping a woman as though they’re doing you a favor and who do seriously consider leaving the office if a child comes down with a fever at school, rather than assuming that you will leave yours. But from what I’ve seen there aren’t enough of these men to qualify as a breed, only as a subgroup.
This all sounds angry; it is. After a lifetime spent with winds of sexual change buffeting me this way and that, it still makes me angry to read the same dumb quotes with the same dumb stereotypes that I was reading when I was eighteen. It makes me angry to realize that after so much change, very little is different. It makes me angry to think that these two female sanitation workers will spend their days doing a job that most of their co-workers think they can’t handle, and then they will go home and do another job most of their co-workers don’t want.